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It's What We Are on the Outside That Counts


Today in Boston, the federal Office of Management and Budget holds the first of three hearings on a nagging problem: How to improve the government's ability to cram Americans into little boxes.

The little boxes are those that indicate a person's race. In our country, which once naively hoped to eliminate prejudice by making government and society color-blind, race identification is now as American as a sexual-harassment suit. The government wants to know, and earnestly believes it has every right to know, which racial box to put each of its subjects into.

Once you're in a box, you're a racial statistic, and part of the government's data collection. In that role you can be used to dispense or withhold federal funds, prove or disprove compliance with civil-rights laws, gerrymander congressional districts in the name of racial equity, and compile demographic profiles of the state, county, town and zip code where you live.

There have been objections to this race-boxing procedure since it began, but the only ones Washington has ever paid much attention to are those that say it still isn't complicated enough. Our government loves a challenge, and when this month's three hearings are over, watch for an announcement of forthcoming new boxes, perhaps quite a lot of them.

The government, along with many of those who profit by complicating its operations, has been feeling the pinch of too few race-designating boxes for some time. In the past it's simply added new ones whenever it felt it could get away with it. Now it's seeking to legitimize that process by holding hearings.

The original two boxes, Black and White (or Negro and Caucasian, in Oldspeak), were obviously insufficient to contain the entire diverse American population. What about Brown, and Yellow, and Red? Quick, authorize more boxes.

Just as the government perceives it needs more information about race, it maintains a similarly insatiable interest in ethnic back ground. In both areas, the more it tries to separate and categorize, the more distinctions blur, and the more absurd the whole process becomes.

For some time there's been a Hispanic box, but you couldn't ever be sure what you were going to find in it. That uncertainty made bureaucratic hearts flutter nervously. Side by side in the same data file, you might easily discover a black Cuban-American and a blond blue-eyed Chilean-American, each named Rodriguez and each a native Spanish speaker.

This was awkward indeed. Another call for more boxes went out.

It's been recently proposed that new government forms include a "multicultural" box. This would be helpful to someone who is half black and half Asian, say, and doesn't want to be forced to make an either/or decision. But it might be equally helpful for a person with Norwegian and Dutch grandparents, for example, especially if that person finds the whole race-boxing process offensive and none of the government's business.

In the long run, the proliferation of boxes has ominous implications for interest-group politics, even though it's interest-group politics that's driving the whole process.

It will be pretty hard to argue, in the varied and colorful place that the United States of this era has become, that those whose heritage is multicultural constitute a minority entitled to special consideration. At the same time, every person who switches from a minority box to a new multicultural box will reduce the numbers, and thus the political influence, of the abandoned minority.

According to The New Republic, the OMB hearings will consider such pressing questions as whether Native Hawaiians should have their own box, or share one

with Native Americans, or continue to be identified as Pacific Islanders and kept in the Asian box.

No doubt such issues will consume most of the time at the hearings, so there won't be much chance to review another proposal -- that the government give up the whole preposterous project of categorizing the citizens of the country and recognize that it has neither the right to demand the required information nor any legitimate use for it.

This would mean that all citizens of the United States would be, for official purposes, simply Americans. It would make all those race and ethnicity boxes obsolete. But perhaps this is too brave a step, even for Bill Clinton's government.

We'll probably have to keep the boxes and settle for smaller reforms. For example, it's been proposed that there be a new box created for "Middle Easterners." An excellent idea, it seems to me. We people from Maryland and Delaware ought to have our own category, and I just hope it doesn't have to include New Jersey.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer. His race is Human.

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